An Independent Project- What Could Possibly Go Wrong? By Alison

As an undergraduate student pursuing a career in ecological research, I knew I needed experience in independent research. So, of course, I jumped at the chance to design and run an independent project with Honko in Madagascar.

Immediately, I hit my first hurdle- what was I going to do? I wanted to study the effects of the loss of the mangrove forest on the fauna of the region. I couldn’t do a mark recapture study without complications, any study involving handling a vertebrate would require training and certifications, there weren’t many large animals in the area anyway, and I wasn’t particularly interesting in fish, insects, or plants. I scrounged through literature databases on studies in Madagascar, and finally found two that formed the base of my project: a study, published by a former Honko volunteer, on the bird species found in the area, and a study on the use of bird species as indicators in edge forests. Having previously studied indicator species last summer, this paper caught my eye, and I decided to compare the abundance and diversity of birds between the four types of plots at Honko: protected forest, replanted forest, degraded forest, and deforested areas.

That solved the question of what I wanted to do for my project. After the usual fuss of travelling, this journey including overly helpful (and hellishly expensive) porters, last minute flight changes, and over twenty four hours on a plane, I found myself at Honko. Once settled, I discovered my next challenge: the mechanics of my study. There were 100 plots in the area managed by Honko, stretching over five kilometers of forest. Six were deforested all in the southern third of forest, seven were replanted, most in the middle third but one in the south, twenty three degraded, most in the south or north, and sixty four protected stretching across the entire area. Clearly, I would have to pick and choose my plots to make sure I had enough time at each and could get from one to another. After poring over the map for a good half hour, I decided on a number of plots to try. The next step was getting there.

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Here came my next challenge. While I could easily walk 5Km in a little over an hour normally, the terrain of the mangroves makes such speedy travel nearly impossible. After losing my shoe twice in the thick, sticky mud, sinking up to my knees, and wading across three separate water channels that could rise past my waist in high tide, I realized I needed to rethink my plots. I chose two sets of eight plots, two of each plot type per set, to study. One set would be observed one day, the other the next. This would not only allow a rest period between my visits but also maximize my sample size while allowing me time to travel between them. Though I had planned to go out to the plots once a week, this proved difficult due to the tides. At high tide, the channels would be difficult to pass, so I elected to collect my data in four days every week and a half, when tides were low around dawn, when the birds are out and I would be in the plots.

Next, I needed to set up my study area in each plot. The methods I planned to use came from the previous study examining birds as indicators. They used a point count method, where the observer stood at a “station” and counted every bird that passed within twenty five meters. Due to the density of the mangrove forest, I decided to cut my area down to twenty meters. Then I needed to mark this in the plots.

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Unlike back home, sticks, flags, flagging, and string are in short supply and must be bought. Fortunately, Honko had some sticks and colored rags left over from a previous study I was allowed to use. It took two days, our volunteer coordinator Lalas, and a local worker Jeannot, to carry the sticks out and measure the distance I would have to study. Additionally, I had to further shorted the distance to fifteen meters when twenty stretched beyond sight in the thickly shrubbed areas. Finally, the work was done and I was ready to begin my study.

Then a completely unexpected problem reared its head. There are three dogs at Honko, which stand guard at night, chase of herds of zebu, and make themselves a nuisance. The gregarious Mama we were able to trap inside, but shortly after heading out Dog came to see what the fuss was about. Fortunately Jeannot had elected to come and he was able to hold Dog outside the plots, hopefully far enough not to scare the birds.

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Even with Dog out of the way, the birds did not come. I insisted on completing all eight plots, but it became clear that the point count method was not suitable for the mangroves. I counted perhaps two birds in all eight plots, a couple of Common Mynas flying over a deforested zone. Lalas advised I try walking through the plots, and after some searching, I put together a new protocol based of a transect study in a published paper. This proved much more feasible.

Halfway through my study, I continue to struggle with elements of the work. The mud is a constant struggle, and I am forced to tie my water shoes shut as the zipper is so clogged with sand it refuses to budge. Today, I nearly lost a shoe twice as I hadn’t tied them tight enough. Some days the wind is strong, and fewer birds are out. Some days, the tide is high enough I empty my pockets before crossing the small channels, and wade well past my knees. Some days the mosquitoes are biting as I walk into the tenth spider web in five minutes. Some days, the gate to the main building is closed and I wait to get water or my shoes, and must rush to my first plot. It is always dark when I get up, usually cold, and feels too damn early.

But the dogs can be shut inside, the transects are working, I have seen some beautiful things, and my study is progressing well. As frustrating as an independent project can be, I am excited to learn about the fascinating birds of Madagascar, and see what results my study will produce.

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